Who Are the Seven Spirits?
“What are the ‘seven spirits’ mentioned in the book of Revelation?”
The expression “seven spirits” is found only in the book of Revelation, and then just four times (1:4; 3:1; 4:5; 5:6). Here are the texts:
“John to the seven churches that are in Asia: Grace to you and peace, from him who is and who was and who is to come; and from the seven spirits that are before his throne, and from Jesus Christ” (1:4-5).
“And to the angel of the church in Sardis write: These things he says who has the seven spirits of God, and the seven stars: I know your works, that you have a name that you are alive, and you are dead” (3:1).
“And out of the throne proceed lightnings and voices and thunders. And there were seven lamps of fire burning before the throne, which are the seven spirits of God” (4:5).
“And I saw in the midst of the throne and of the four living creatures, and in the midst of the elders, a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain, having seven horns, and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God, sent forth into all the earth” (5:6).
The Common View
It will be the thrust of this article to argue the case that the phrase “seven spirits,” as employed in the final book of the New Testament, is a symbolic reference to the Holy Spirit.
The numeral “seven” (hepta) corresponds to the Hebrew term sheba’, related to saba, meaning to be “full,” “abundant.” Hepta (found 56 times in the Apocalypse — of the 88 in the New Testament) is the number that represents perfection or completeness (cf. Gunner, p. 898).
The plural form “spirits” may suggest the diversity of his powers, or, in the context of chapters 1-3, his ministry within the seven congregations that were selected for illustrative purposes (there were more churches in Asia than the seven mentioned; cf. Colossians 1:2; 4:13,15-16).
It is interesting to notice that in three of the passages cited above (3:1; 4:5; 5:6), the “spirits” are said to be “of God.” Thirteen times elsewhere in the New Testament the Holy Spirit is characterized as being “of God.” In two other texts the Spirit is described as being “of Jesus” or “of Christ” (Acts 16:7; Galatians 4:6).
Testimony of Respected Scholars
Bloomfield observed that the conviction that the expression “seven spirits” is the equivalent of the “Holy Spirit” was the general view of ancient scholars up until about the middle of the 18th century when certain “foreign critics” began to identify the phrase with the “attributes” of “the Supreme Being” (pp. 564-565). One writer notes that:
“John never uses the expression ‘the Holy Spirit,’ but he uses the word Spirit in a variety of ways. ‘The Spirit’ is found in 2:7, 17, etc., so he clearly knows of the Holy Spirit. Seven Spirits recurs in 3:1, 4:5; 5:6. On the whole it seems most probable that we should think of the number seven as signifying perfection or the like, and of the whole expression as pointing to the Holy Spirit” (Morris, p. 48).
The tedious multiplication of additional references is quite unnecessary. For a consideration of various other views of the identity of the “seven spirits,” and a scholarly refutation of the same, see Barnes (pp. 40-43).
Old Testament Background
It is a well-known fact that much of the imagery of the book of Revelation is borrowed from the Old Testament. Since the message of the book is one of victory over the persecuting forces of Satan, the use of apocalyptical symbolism was a perfect method of “smuggling” a message of hope to the saints, without antagonizing their foes, and thus perhaps intensifying their agony. The Christians, being familiar with the writings of the Old Testament, could interpret the “symbolic code,” thereby receiving comfort, while their enemies remained in the dark.
Many scholars have seen a language/theme connection between the expression “seven spirits,” and a descriptive in the Old Testament book of Zechariah. We quote a portion of chapter 4 from the ancient document.
“And the angel that talked with me came again, and waked me, as a man that is wakened out of his sleep. And he said unto me, What do you see? And I said, I have seen, and, behold, a candlestick all of gold, with its bowl upon the top of it, and its seven lamps thereon; there are seven pipes to each of the lamps, which are upon the top thereof; and two olive-trees by it, one upon the right side of the bowl, and the other upon the left side thereof. And I answered and spoke to the angel that talked with me, saying, What are these, my lord? Then the angel that talked with me answered and said unto me, Do you not know what these are? And I said, No, my lord. Then he answered and spoke unto me, saying, This is the word of Jehovah unto Zerubbabel, saying, Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit says Jehovah of hosts” (Zechariah 4:1-6; emphasis added).
The seven lamps, connected to seven pipes, and fueled by the oil of the olive trees (vv. 2-3), represented a source of illumination. These elements are interpreted by the angel as being a reference to the “Spirit” of God (v. 6).
The language of Revelation appears to be extracted substantially from this text. In Revelation, chapters 4 and 5, there is an exalted, symbolic description of the sacred Godhead. The Father is the chief focus of chapter 4, but he is depicted quite figuratively (e.g., amidst the imagery of precious stones, rainbow, etc., vv. 3ff), while Christ is the focus of praise in chapter 5 (the “lamb” that had been slain, but subsequently was standing, v. 6b). In these respective visions, however, there is first a reference to “seven lamps” of burning fire “which are the seven spirits of God” (4:5), and “seven eyes which are the seven spirits of God” (5:6). The verbs “are” identify the language as metaphorical.
It would be strange indeed that there is an allusion to God, the Father, in Revelation 1:4a, a reference to Jesus Christ in 1:5a, while sandwiched between these two members of the Godhead there is a suggestion of mere angels, etc., much less a figurative non-entity of some sort. This does not seem reasonable at all.
Additionally, as John T. Hinds observed: “a blessing is invoked from the three” mentioned in 1:4-5. John petitions for “grace and peace” from “him who was and who is and who is to come” [the Father], and “the seven spirits,” and “Jesus Christ” (p. 20).
One should note the coordinating conjunctions connecting the three. Since it is wrong to pray to any one except deity, the conclusion to follow would indicate that the “seven spirits” must be a reference to deity; in this case the Holy Spirit.
While there are clear references in Revelation to various heavenly creatures that worshipped at the throne of God, e.g., the “elders” (4:4), and the “four living creatures” (4:6), there is no hint that the “seven spirits” worshipped God. It would appear this is to be explained only on the basis that the imagery of the “seven spirits” represented one who was deity himself, i.e., the Holy Spirit.
In 5:6-7, the “seven spirits” are intimately associated with the slain Lamb. They are “sent forth” [apestalmenoi — masculine] into all the earth. This corresponds perfectly with the fact that Christ promised to “send” the Spirit after his ascension into heaven (John 15:26; cf. Acts 2:33).
Furthermore, whereas one might have expected a neuter verbal form underlying “sent forth” (to agree with “Spirits” — a neuter), it was not extraordinary for John to override normal grammatical agreement and use masculine forms with the Holy Spirit due to the personality of the third member of the Godhead (cf. John 14:26, where the masculine pronoun “he” [ekeinos] is used with the neuter antecedent, “Spirit” [pneuma]).
We believe, therefore, that the best explanation for the “seven spirits,” mentioned in the four passages of Revelation, is simply that these are references to the Spirit himself, but in the characteristically symbolic language of the concluding book of the New Testament.
- Barnes, Albert. 1954 reprint. Notes on the New Testament — Revelation. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker.
- Bloomfield, S. T. 1837. Greek Testament with English Notes. Boston, MA: Perkins & Marvin.
- Gunner, R. A. H. 1962. The New Bible Dictionary. J. D. Douglas, ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.
- Hinds, John T. 1955. A Commentary on the Book of Revelation. Nashville, TN: Gospel Advocate.
- Morris, Leon. 1980. The Revelation of St. John. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.